For some reason, no one could nail a solid reboot of the original Voltron: Defender of the Universe.
There were attempts before, and my understanding is that they’ve been lackluster. Strange, because the original show adhered to a relatively simple premise; a group of space explorers for the Galaxy Alliance are captured by the Drule Empire and taken to Planet Doom. After escaping, they make their way to Planet Arus where Princess Allura helps them discover five legendary robotic lions. These assemble into Voltron, who defends the planet from King Zarkon.
The American version of the original series stuck to a formulaic approach. After the movie-long introduction of Voltron and the team, each episode resulted in the appearance of a huge robeast (robotic beast) who would then perish to Voltron’s sword. Occasionally the team would face a real problem, such as one of the team being injured or some espionage that prevented forming the eponymous hero. Other times actual changes to the plot would drive events, such as the introduction of Prince Lotor, or the transformation of Commander Yurak into a robeast followed shortly thereafter by his legitimate death.
But the original Voltron did have a huge impact on other media and pop culture in general. Gestalt combinations of robots were integrated into the Transformers series, and there’s no doubt where the concept of Power Rangers came from. And to this day, the phrase “And I’ll form the head!” can still invoke laughter from those in the know.
All of this is why Netflix and DreamWorks Animation’s new series, Voltron: Legendary Defender, shocked and awed by possessing a forward-thinking story, subplots, great character development and solutions that don’t always revolve around slashing kaiju in half. And as if it being green-lit for season 2 wasn’t awesome enough, we’ll be getting it this year.
This review will avoid spoilers, but the same cannot be said of the links. Click with caution.
The show opens with the abduction of Shiro (a re-envisioned Sven) and his research team during first contact with the alien Galra Empire. A year later, Galaxy Garrison space cadets (in both rank and metaphor) Hunk, Pidge and Lance prove themselves a crew in need of cohesion.
But just as Pidge lets on that he knows more about the events of the universe than they’re being told, the trio go to investigate an incoming distress call. The emergency proves to be an escaped Shiro, who the Garrison is about to take in custody and quarantine. With the help of training washed out Keith the five escape the garrison forces. Combining their knowledge, they are eventually led to the hiding place of the blue lion who auto-pilots them to Planet Altea. There, a desperate Princess Allura and Coran instruct them in reassembling Voltron.
If this synopsis of the first episode sounds a little rushed, that’s because it is. The first is also the longest of the series; almost 70 minutes compared to the ten 23 minute episodes that follow. The pacing is relying on the viewers wanting to cut to the meat of series rather than worry about minor details, like how Princess Allura happens to speak the same language as the earthling team. Or the Galrans too for that.
But it’s the following episodes when the show really begins to shine. Unlike the original series, the Voltron force doesn’t stick around to play some ridiculously prolonged defensive campaign. The Castle of Lions is actually a modified spaceship that is grounded, and the team intend to embark on a perhaps decade-long guerrilla campaign to free the galaxy from Galran control.
And this is no small task. In the opening episode(s), it is revealed that the Galran empire is a huge sum of galactic space but has yet to come into regular contact with humanity. The showrunners actually treat the empire realistically too, with infrastructural concerns like refueling stations for their fleets, production and mining facilities— economic considerations light years ahead of what Defenders of the Universe ever pondered. The ten episodes barely scratched the surface and yet they’re off to a bang-up start.
But more than the “evil empire” trope, all of this is unexplored territory for a bunch of earthlings who have never been outside human-controlled space before. Although how they overcame language barriers isn’t explained, there is plenty of culture clash. Hunk learns the hard way what the Alteans consider food, Pidge questions their concept of time and there are many alien races out there to meet. And if culture is the “little stuff,” then there are bigger discoveries out there such as the colossal Balmera, which not only add to the depth of the universe but also serve as interest story elements in and of themselves.
Goofiness seems to be the most defining characteristic of much of the cast. Compared to his Defender of the Universe bonhomme counterpart, Coran is almost over-the-top with ridiculousness. This is strange when mixed with his otherwise traditionalist views and position as the show’s lore-keeper. Much of the team is prone to rib-poking too, particularly at the expensive of good-natured Hunk. There’s a few times when the humor risks being ill-placed, especially in the first episode. But the rest of the series tempers itself to know when to crack a smile and when to hold off.
But unlike the original series, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery proved willing to build on both the heroes and villains, and found subtle ways to indicate a willingness to lose them as well. For the pilots, the two biggest changes have been Pidge and Shiro. The latter was given a great backstory with forward-moving motivation, while the former slowly unravels the mysteries of what happened to him during his abduction. Lance and Keith primarily provide rivalry and personalities this season, while Hunk becomes more personally involved in one mission the team undertakes. Even Voltron itself gets more of a backstory.
Then there are the villains. Except for a degree more litheness than the past, Space Witch Haggar is relatively untouched in role and menace. Her services to Emperor (a welcome promotion from “King”) Zarkon are the same; advising and creating new technologies and robeasts. For fear of spoilers, the changes to Zarkon himself will not be addressed. Still, these alterations exemplify the ethos of the show to rarely come out and say something. Rather, Voltron: Legendary Defender prefers to show the audience the pieces and allow the mystery to reveal itself on its own time in a rather organic manner.
But it’s Princess Allura who received the most revisions. The prior series cast her initially as something of a damsel in distress who eventually steps up to the plate to become a lion pilot. This time, she and Coran are in charge of the ship, and she takes a commander’s role to Shiro’s captaincy. She also reveals that Alteans are not space humans and, perhaps in the biggest piece of foreshadowing, suffers a personal loss half way through the series.
This loss was of a cornerstone element of Defender of the Universe. While not really a “death,” this event may subtly indicate that DreamWorks is willingly to write permanent changes to the course of the plot. As Sven (Shiro) was killed early int he original Japanese series, it is not impossible that other deaths may follow. Time will tell how much everyone’s favorite robot show has matured.
Whether you’re a fan of 80’s nostalgia, good anime or just something family friendly, check out Voltron: Legendary Defender before the start of the second season later this year.